A Saturday Afternoon Event
A wedding is about to start when I arrive in Montluçon on a humid Saturday afternoon. The church – the Eglise Saint Pierre – was built in the 12th century, so I do the math. If you assume 1 wedding a week (and that’s probably estimating on the low side), that means more than a thousand couples have gotten married here over the centuries – and this is only one of several significant churches in town.
A family crowd is gathered in the little square by the main doors of the church. The bride, her train held off the cobblestones by a teenage girl, is being tended by her mother, who’s wearing a long black gown in spite of the building heat. Her father is talking with a gaggle of family members. I can see a generous coating of sweat on the forehead of the groom, standing alone and behind the family group in what appears to be a blue velvet suit.
The music has started inside, so I’ll have to come back if I want to see inside Saint Pierre’s. I move on to the larger, contemporary place in the center of town. A kid is walking along the border of the fountains, leaning into the spray for a little relief from the heat. A group is singing folky music under an awning; as I approach, one of their number comes out into the sunlight to ask me about my religion.
Welcome to Montluçon
This is Montluçon, the largest town in the Bourbonnais and long considered the industrial center of the region. (It is not, though, the administrative capital; that honor goes to the smaller town of Moulins, just down the road from here.)
We’ve visited here before to see MuPop – the Museum of Popular Music, an exceptionally well-curated collection of instruments, songs, and stories about musicians from the French Revolution to the present. Today, though, we’re in town in search of the medieval quarter and the traces of the Bourbon families who ruled this part of France from 1070 A.D. to 1523 A.D.
Rise of the House of Bourbon
It’s an extraordinary family story (worth another post of its own), and it parallels the development of the monarchy in France. Granted the title of “Duke of Bourbon” in 1327, these nobles fought as allies of the royal Valois family during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). But in a typically convoluted mess of arguments about who could succeed whom, the family first turned against the French king, the title was vacated for 20 years or so, and then an offshoot branch got itself married back into the French royal family.
It takes a flowchart of rocket-science complexity to trace all these developments, but the result was that Henri IV, King of Navarre (and husband of the notorious Queen Margot) became King of France in 1589, establishing the House of Bourbon as the official royal line of the kingdom.
Quite a long stretch, then, from this rich little agricultural region in the deep heart of France to the throne room in Paris…but the story goes even further.
The French Kings we know best today – Louis XIV (the “Sun King”), Louis XVI, Louis Philippe in the last century – all come from the House of Bourbon. By marriage, the family’s influence spread to Spain and Luxembourg, and the royal heads of those countries today are still considered to be “Bourbons”! There’s even an upper-crust family in India claiming to be Bourbon descendants, and there’s a rather famous drink invented in Kentucky that bears the family name.
A Bourbon Chateau in Montluçon
So it’s not surprising to find that the centerpiece of Montluçon is a Bourbon castle, towering above the town. It’s a sharp climb up a zig-zag street, and a little disappointing to find that the unusual palace at the top is not really open to the public. (I believe it's used to store the overflow exhibits from MuPop.) A little digging reveals that it was abandoned by the Dukes in 1527 while they were out of favor with the ruling family, and only used sporadically since then, as a police court, an army barracks, then a town hall. While some restoration has happened, that’s been sporadic, too, and much of it is crudely done with concrete and modern materials.
The view from here, though, is spectacular. From the esplanade around the old castle you can see far across the plains of the Bourbonnais. Ceramic tables posted around the walls help you identify the distant sights on the horizon in every direction, while ragged gargoyles watch over the staircase that leads to the town below.
It's Not Only About the Bourbons, Though
There’s plenty else to see in Montluçon. The Cher River winds through the city and makes for a beautiful walk in the late afternoon heat. Besides Saint Pierre, there’s an impressive 15th-century gothic Church of Notre Dame near the Bourbon chateau. At least a dozen other medieval houses make the city an authentic repository of ancient French architecture.
There are reminders of more recent history, too. A beautiful garden constructed on the grounds of an old baronial house is named for the U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. During World War II, the town was bombed by the German Luftwaffe in 1940 and 81 people were killed. The Germans took over the Dunlop tire factory to make airplane tires for the same Luftwaffe, so it’s not surprising that the town was bombed again – this time, by the Allies in 1943, leaving 36 dead and 250 wounded.
Worth the Trip to the Deep Heart of France!
If you go to Montluçon, be sure to take in the medieval atmosphere of the old town – but be sure, too, to leave a couple of hours to explore the excellent MuPop museum.
If you’re lucky enough to have 3 or 4 days to spend in the region, the Bourbonnais is not just for lovers of French history.
The gorges of the Sioule river challenge even the most vigorous hikers and canoeists, while families love Le PAL, a combination zoo and amusement park. Connoisseurs of food and wine appreciate the tender Charolais beef and light, fruity reds and whites of the St. Pourcain vignoble.
Have you been to the Bourbonnais? What did you discover there? Please share your experience of traveling in the deep heart of France in the comments section – and, as always, please take a second to click on one of the buttons below to share this post with others using your preferred social-media platform!